By getting smarter, thermoplastic elastomers will find new ways to grow, according to longtime industry consultant Robert Eller.
"The question is how do you make TPEs smart through advanced technology," Eller said in a recent phone interview.
The automotive market will continue to be a big one for TPEs, he added, saying that increased use of TPEs per car should make up for flat growth in the number of vehicles made.
"TPEs still offer lighter weight [in automotive], and there's growth potential in sensing and projecting applications," said Eller, president of Robert Eller Associates LLC in Akron, Ohio.
Overall, the global TPE market — including thermoplastic olefins, thermoplastic vulcanizates, thermoplastic polyurethanes, styrenic block copolymers and copolyesters — is averaging annual demand growth of 4 to 5 percent, he added.
Several TPE makers, including Polymax Elastomer Technology Co. Ltd., Hexpol TPE, Kraiburg TPE and Teknor Apex Co., are adding U.S. capacity to keep up with demand.
In the medical field, film applications for TPEs in pouches for blood and other liquids are growing, Eller said, as the materials are seen as PVC replacements. The functionality of many TPEs also is improving, he added, as the materials now can withstand higher temperatures. TPVs, for example, now can handle temperatures above 125°C.
The only potential drawback to near-term TPE demand growth, according to Eller, is the possibility of downgauging in products leading to less TPE being used in individual applications. TPE makers also are facing competitive challenges in some cases from the entry of distributors into the compounding sector.
Eller, who founded his firm in 1991, added that the structure of the TPE industry is changing as a result of what he called "reverse globalization." For example, a North American automotive OEM might start doing business in China, bringing the TPEs it already uses.
But while in China, the OEM discovers that locally made TPEs cost less and are of good quality. The OEM then starts using some Chinese-made TPEs in its North American operations, Eller said.